Wednesday, February 04, 2009

An American Float

The photo above, shows a rather inconspicuous dark olive/amber, well-used glass ball. It was purchased from a seller living on the Northeast Atlantic Coast. When looked at a bit closer, the color of the glass indicates that the float was made prior to about 1890. The color is the color of very old wine bottle glass-a color indicating manufacturing up to a hundred or more years before 1890. By 1890, that color of glass was no longer used, except in the occasional alcohol bottle. The various shades of green/amber glass are sometimes called “natural colors.” The various shades of this color were caused by the amount of iron oxide in the sand that was used in the glass mixture. This is an old float.

How many times was it used and reused by different fishermen? If it could speak to us, what stories could it tell of storms, high seas, tranquil days bobbing above or under the water, great Whales and other fish that were swimming close to it, Codfish caught in the gill nets it was attached to or the lives of the men who used it?

There is no maker’s marking or cachet embossed anywhere on the glass. If there was a mark on its seal button we will never know, because it was chipped off from use. Who was the glassblower who blew it? Did he have a young apprentice, or was it blown by a two-man team of experienced European immigrants? In what glass factory was it blown in? Who wove the very American-looking sparse cap net for it? Was it netted prior to its last net, and if so, how many times was it netted and re-netted? Is this one of the oldest American floats in existence?

Wait a minute! America did not start making floats until sometime in the early 1930's. The North West Glass Company of Seattle, Washington made their first floats about 1933. Perhaps the Crystalite floats from Glendale, California came first? How could this guy be writing about an American float made before 1890? Well, there is a story, and there is proof.

From “THE FISHERIES AND FISHERY INDUSTRIES OF THE UNITED STATES,” Section V, volumes I and II. The Gill-Net Cod Fishery, by J.W. Collins

Although gill-nets have long been used in Northern Europe, more especially in Norway, as an apparatus for the capture of cod, and are considered indispensable by the Norwegians, they have not until recently been introduced into the United States. In 1878 Prof. Spencer F. Baird, U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries, knowing how profitably these were employed by the Norwegian fishermen, decided to make experiments with them at Cape Ann, with a view to their introduction among the cod fishermen of this country. He accordingly secured a number of the Norwegian nets, which were sent to Gloucester and there tested by the employees of the Commission.

Experiments were made when the winter school of cod were on the shore grounds, but the results obtained were not satisfactory, owing chiefly to the fact that the nets were found far too frail for the large cod which frequent our coast in winter. This was apparent from the numerous holes in the nets, which indicated plainly that large fish had torn their way through, none being retained excepting those that had become completely rolled up in the twine. The current also swept them afoul of the rocky bottom, which injured them still more, so that they were soon rendered nearly unfit for use. The nets were invariably in bad order when hauled from the water, but even under such unfavorable circumstances nearly a thousand pounds of fish were caught on one occasion. This seemed to indicate that nets of sufficient strength might be used to good advantage, at least on some of the smoother fishing grounds along the coast.

These preliminary trials, therefore, having demonstrated that nets could be employed advantageously in the American cod fisheries, Professor Baird availed himself of the first opportunity that offered for obtaining definite knowledge of the methods of netting cod in Norway, with intention of disseminating this information among American cod fishermen.

The opening of the International Fishery Exhibition at Berlin, Germany, in the spring of 1880 presented a favorable opportunity for accomplishing this purpose. Professor Baird having appointed me as one of the commission to attend the exhibition on the staff of Prof. G. Brown Goode, desired that a careful study should be made of the foreign methods of the deep-sea fisheries as represented at the exhibition. The method of capturing cod with gill-nets, as practiced by the Norwegian fishermen, was mentioned as a subject which should receive especial consideration, and it was suggested that it might even be desirable to visit Norway, so that the practical operation of this fishery could be observed.

It was the original intention of Professor Baird that a report of the observations made at the Berlin exhibition should be published as soon after the return of the commissioners as possible, but circumstances delayed its preparation.

The use of gill-nets in the cod fisheries at Ipswich Bay during the winter of 1880-‘81 resulted in such complete success that there is probability that they may be, at some future time, introduced into the bank fisheries, as well as those along the coast.

That is the story of the first use of gill nets for Cod in the United States.. The story goes on to describe the making of and the size and structure of the Norwegian gill nets. A couple of interesting parts of Mr. Collins writing are as follows.

The three-layed hemp twine, which is the most common size, weighs a pound to 400 or 420 fathoms. It is made chiefly on spinning wheels by the fishermen’s families, and the nets are constructed almost exclusively by the fishermen and their wives and children. Some of the hemp twine, however is furnished by the factories of Norway and Great Britain, which also supply all of the cotton and linen twine.

And: The nets are generally prepared for use in Norway by tanning, and will last, when so prepared, from one to five seasons. The nets are supported upright in the water by floats of wood, cork, or hollow glass. At the Lofoten Islands, where nets are more extensively used than elsewhere, the glass floats are preferred, it being said that they replace to great advantage the old wooden ones, which failed to prevent the nets from settling on the bottom.

The glass floats are about 5 inches in diameter, with a covering of tarred marlin or spun-yarn hitched over them, to which is attached an eye. In this eye is bent the small rope that holds them to the net. When so prepared for use, these floats are very strong, and break far less frequently than might be supposed. They withstand the pressure of water when submerged better than anything else that has been tried, but are sometimes filled with water-“drunken” it is called-when set in 70 or 80 fathoms. The small ropes with which these are held to the nets vary in length from 11/2 to 6 feet.

In that same book in the chapter, “The Cod, Haddock, and Hake Fisheries,” by G. Brown Goode, there is the following:

Buoys of different kinds are used by the Norwegian fishermen, but, according to Mr. Wallem, at the Lofoten Islands glass buoys, having a capacity of about three to five gallons, are the most common. These are generally egg-shape (could this be a description of the large and rare teardrop floats that Pereinar 123 found) and are covered in the same manner as the glass floats. Sometimes a buoy is made by fastening several of the latter around a staff. The glass buoys of both kinds are employed in the trawl as well as the net fishery; they will rise to the surface again after having been under water for several days-an advantage not possessed by other kinds-and it seems that buoys of this description might be profitably used by our bank fishermen, who frequently lose large quantities of gear on account of the wooden ones bursting and filling with water when they are submerged to any considerable depth. Hard-wood iron-bound kegs are used by some of the Norwegian net fishermen. From two to four glass floats, (this seems to be a description of the beautiful 2-5 Norwegian netted-together glass floats sometimes found on Ebay auctions) such as are on the nets, are fastened to the bight of the buoy line at different distances from the buoy, for the purpose of keeping the slack or scope from going on the bottom when there is no current. Where there is a strong tide, and a probability of the large buoy being drawn under the surface of the water, a number of the glass balls are attached to it with a line, these serving as “watch-buoys” for the other.

I have to stop this narrative here, and change direction a bit. So far the writing has been mostly a discription of the Norwegian use of glass fishing floats and cod gill nets, and nothing to point to glass floats being made here in the 1880's. I promise the reader that we will get there, but the story of the use of gill nets for Cod in Ipswich Bay, Rhode Island, is an interesting one, and part of the history of the manufacturing of glass fishing floats and gill nets here in the U.S.A.

In another fine book, “THE FISHERMAN’S OWN BOOK,” By Proctor Brothers, there is a chapter: “Gill-Net Codfishing in Ipswich Bay.” The same story that is contained in the book introduced above, is contained in this book, but in slightly greater detail.

Impressed with the importance of the saving made in the cost of bait, and of time consumed in procuring bait, Prof. Baird decided in the Summer of 1878, when the Summer quarters of the Fish Commission were located in Gloucester, to experiment as to the practicability of introducing the Norwegian methods in our waters. Accordingly, he procured a set of Norwegian gill nets, which attracted considerable attention at the laboratory of the Commission at Fort Wharf, from their novel construction and curious glass floats. When the Winter school of codfish set in, in the Fall of 1878, experiments were made with these nets on the “Old Man’s Pasture,” but it was found that the nets were too frail for the large cod which frequent our coast in Winter, and for the strong current and rocky bottom along our shores.
The story of the task force going to the International Fisheries Exhibit at Berlin continues, and then the narrative goes on.

Meanwhile the Norwegian seines remained at the Gloucester headquarters of the Fish Commission, with the understanding that they were at the service of any responsible master who desired to experiment with them.

In the Fall of 1880 the scarcity of bait interfered with the successful prosecution of the shore fishery, and at the suggestion of Capt. Stephen J. Martin, an attache of the Commission, his son, Capt. George H. Martin, decided to make a trial of net fishing in the schooner Northern Eagle of Gloucester. Securing the nets belonging to the Commission, and procuring others of improved construction, the Northern Eagle made a thorough trial of this method of fishing for shore cod in Ipswich Bay in the Winter of 1880-81, with such success that before the season closed quite a number of the shore fleet provided themselves with similar outfits.
The experiment proved a success from the start. For the first three nights the catch was 4,000, 6,000 and 7,000 lbs. respectively, although the weather was unfavorable and the trawl fishermen were securing only about half the amount taken by the Northern Eagle. In eight days’ fishing this schooner took 40,000 lbs. Of large fish, and on one trip, ending Jan. 11, 1881, she took a fare of 35,000 lbs., of which 8,000 lbs. were taken in one morning.

The nets used by the Ipswich Bay Fishermen are made of strong Scotch flax twine, twelve-thread, and are of nine-inch mesh (41/2 inches square). Those used by Capt. Martin were 50 fathoms long and 3 fathoms deep, while other vessels, later in the season, used nets 100 fathoms long and 2 fathoms deep. The floats were of glass, fifty of them being attached to a fifty-fathom net. Bricks were used as sinkers, one being attached to the foot of the net directly beneath each of the floats. These fifty-fathom nets cost about $18 each, and a fourteen pound trawl anchor was attached to each end of a gang of three nets.

From THE FISHERIES AND FISHERY INDUSTRIES OF THE UNITED STATES, Section V, volumes I and II, comes this wonderful information:

These nets have been principally made by the American Net and Twine Company, and H. & G. W. Lord, Boston, Mass.; and These glass floats are made at the glass factories in Boston.

In my research I have come up with the names of two glass companies that were operating in the Boston area, and in which the glass floats for the first American-made Cod gill nets may have been made: New England Glass Co. and Boston & Sandwich Glass Co. I lean toward the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co. as having been the primary maker. It was a large enough company to handle the great demand for cod gill net glass floats that happened within a very short time. Unfortunately, I have been unable to confirm my theory in the existing records of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co.

Additional research shows that Prof. Baird circulated a free, illustrated pamphlet during the years 1880-1882, describing all the methods of gill net fishing.

Notice of successful Cod fishing printed in the Cape Ann Advertiser Dec. 8th. 1882 entitled: “The Good Results of Net Cod Fishing,” reads, “Tues. 12/4, the boat Equal with two men took 5,000 lbs. of large codfish, in seven nets offshore, sharing $40.00 each. The Rising Star has stocked $1,200.00 the past fortnight fishing in Ipswich Bay. The Morrill Boy has shared $101.00 to a man net fishing off this shore the past three weeks.”

By 1883, many women of Gloucester were employed in making nets. On 11/25, 1883 Capt. Martin writes to Capt. Collins: “Everybody is at work. A great Winter’s work is anticipated.”

Capt. Collins writes: “The demand by November 1883 for nets was so high that the fishermen had a hard time obtaining gear. On one occasion several boats had to wait four days to get a supply of glass floats, which are so essential to this fishery.” In the winter of 1883/84 gill nets cost $14.25 each, and glass floats were 22 cents ea. at their lowest price.

This knowledge of the first use and manufacturing of glass floats in the United States, has been kept locked up tight in my mind, and not shared with anyone for many years. The thought that one day I would write a book about glass fishing floats, and that this information would be a great chapter in that book, was the reason why I never shared the information. One day in a conversation with Ken Busse, we were talking about our theories and discoveries about glass floats, and I almost spilled the beans. Ken asked me if I wanted to share some of the thoughts that I had, and share we did. Somehow, I kept this story to myself until now. As a few of you know, my desire to write a book changed. Instead, I’ve decided to start this blog. I truly love to handle and look at my old American float, and wonder about its story.


  1. Anonymous11:07 AM

    You have done a Superb research's job here Tom. Very interesting reading about US Glassworks and hopefully you'll find facts about float production back in the old days or maybe witch balls ;) Just like in Norway...research among historical researchers proffesional here in Norway shows glass float finds dated back to the very beginning of year 1800, but was these floats intended for use in fisheries.....I guess not, but who knows?? Beer bottles and other bottles was used on fishing nets in the beginning of year 1800 in Norway and 1830 -1840 fishing glass floats. And as we all know, plenty people emigrated to US in the old workers, and you name it! Norwegians had to get glass workers from Sweden and Germany and maybe someone started glassworks, you have to dig and dig deeper Tom ;)

    Keep up the good work!!


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    My Fiance's grandmother who is 95 years old, lives in a house which was once a church, that was built in 1890 on the island of Great Inagua in the Bahamas. He recently found about 10 or more of the glass bouys you speak of in your article. He also found some very very old keys,along with china that was owned by his great-grandparents. I was just wondering what do you think the bouys are worth today? email me at

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